How to seek legal advice regarding acting contracts

When you are offered that first acting job or perhaps your first paid gig it can incredibly exciting - so much so that you can easily forget to look over the contract given over to you and end up signing away your rights to fair wages, working hours or even credits. One bit of key advice I was given when I started out was to make sure you read your contract carefully, and ask someone else to scan over it to; some one you trust and whose opinion you respect.

My first professional acting job was in a repertory theatre and as such I signed an 'Equity Rep' contract, entitling me to a full lunch hour, two 15 minute tea breaks and two clear hours in-between rehearsals and performances. I was on slightly over an Equity minimum wage and all was well. However, it wasn't until my stage manager caught me coming to work on that back of a colleague's motorcycle that I realised my contract was much more detailed than I had thought…

Among many other conditions that I had not even paid any mind to, I was legally not allowed to ride on the back of a motorcycle without full leather protection and insurance; take part in any extreme sports including skiing or water-sports etc. The reason for which became very clear: if I had an accident then the theatre might have to cancel the show and would lose ticket sales - therefore by taking part in 'dangerous' activities I could be seen as responsible for the accident, the loss of the ticket sales and as a result have to pay for the refund of each ticket. This information shocked me into making sure I didn't over look my contract in such away every again.

In a slightly different situation, a friend of mine was acting in a show in the West-End and as such was subject to a West-End Equity TMA agreement. After a night of one too many after show drinks the actor turned up to the next day's matinee performance completely and utterly sloshed that the cast and crew agreed that the actor was indeed 'unfit' to work. For some reason unknown to me (other than to make a statement) the Company Stage Manager in question cancelled the show and made the actor pay for every ticket on that day - a bill rising into the thousands.

So - if you are unsure or worried about what your contract stipulates and offers you in the way of support, protection and the like, then there are three sensible suggestions I have for you

a) Your Agent
Many Actors have representation with an agency of some sort that put them up for jobs and auditions with casting directors that can sometimes be hard to contact. I do know several actors who get the majority of their work themselves but keep themselves on their agency books because they can negotiate contracts and offer advice. This is a massive part of an agent's job. However, if you don't have representation - where else do you go?

b) Equity (union)
Whether with an Agent or not, if you are a professional actor then the chances are you are a member of the theatrical union Equity. Whilst many actors sign up and pay their subscriptions to Equity, many don't actually know just how much help and advice they're entitle to. Equity offer free, unlimited advice to their members and have a team of Legal experts who can help you understand and make sense of a contract before you sign it. They work fairly, quickly and confidentially if want it to be that way. Equity also work in conjunction with a range of other organisations such as SKY, TMA (Theatre managers association) and the BBC - so if your contract is with the BBC for example, it is extremely likely that it follows the union guidelines - however it may also be worth checking as many BBC productions are now produced primarily by independent, outside companies who then sell the program to the corporation.

c) Company Stage Manager
If you are not a member of Equity or a union and do not have an Agent then, officially speaking, you might have to think about paying someone privately to offer their advice on a contract. I however would sooner seek out the advice of a COMPANY STAGE MANAGER. These professionals are required to negotiate contracts for actors during runs and employed to honour the deals made, so if you're worried about a contract then they would more than likely be able to quickly run you through your rights.

For more information, got to the Equity Union website, BBC website or contact the TMA (Theatre manager's association).